Benjamin Grosvenor: Beyond his years
When Benjamin Grosvenor walked onto the stage of Oberlin College's Finney Chapel, he easily could have been mistaken for one of the many piano majors on campus. From the opening measures of the Bach French Suite in G Major, however, any thoughts that Grosvenor was anything but a seasoned professional were quickly put to rest. At just 25 years of age, Grosvenor has already played in some of the biggest venues, and with the most prestigious orchestras in the world. In April 2018, he can add to this already impressive list his first performance with the New York Philharmonic as the winner of their inaugural Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Piano Prize.1
While he may seem young to have accomplished so much, Grosvenor's first success came at a much younger age. He was just eleven years old when he was recognized as the outstanding winner of the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition after his brilliant performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. Since then, his playing has been compared to Schnabel and Cortot and he has been touted as the best English pianist in half a century. Grosvenor shared his background, thoughts on performing, and why he is hesitant to give advice to up-and-coming pianists when we spoke on Oberlin College's campus prior to his performance on their Artist Recital Series last November.
Your mother was your first teacher. Did you find it difficult separating mother from teacher?
Having my mother as my teacher definitely worked for me. She was my first and only teacher until I was 9 or 10. At that point, I think she felt that I had a special talent and I needed someone else's input. My mother still had a big influence even after I began studying in London. She helped me practice when I was younger and it was good to have her advice.
At what point did you study with another teacher?
Around age 10, my mother sent a video to a couple in London who are piano teachers. She realized I needed someone who could guide me into more advanced repertoire. I studied with Hilary Coates for a year before switching to her husband, Christopher Elton, who is the head of keyboard at the Royal Academy of Music. That was when I entered the BBC Young Artist Competition. I've been with him ever since and I still play for him occasionally. I began an affiliation with the academy as well, which is where I completed my degree.
Were you always motivated to practice as a young student?
There were moments when I needed some coercing to practice—but in a supportive way. I think that's fairly natural in the course of one's practicing, but, at some point, it ceased to be an issue. When I started practicing more, I could play more satisfying pieces and then I really fell in love with the music. I had a very strong internal motivation to practice.
Was there a moment that made you realize that performance was your calling?
I think there was a particular performance when I was ten. There was a special atmosphere at the concert I gave. It had a special feel, and I liked the act of communicating with an audience. At that point, I realized it was what I would like to do, something that was quickly reinforced by winning the BBC Young Artist Competition. I entered just for the experience, with no expectations of getting past the first round. But then, I made it to the finals and was able to play with a professional orchestra for the first time, which was very exciting. All of those positive experiences reinforced my thoughts on becoming a performer.
You really didn't think you would win?
No. I didn't expect to get past the first round—nor did my parents. It was a surprise for my teacher, as well. I did manage to get to the finals and have that wonderful experience of playing with an orchestra. The BBC competition is a friendly one for young people under the age of nineteen. Also, it is spread throughout the year and not condensed into just a few weeks; there are a few months between each round. This gave me the opportunity to learn new repertoire and it really gave me something to work toward. I developed a lot as a musician during that year.
After you won the competition, you were signed by EMI and had more opportunities to perform. Did you still feel that it was important to finish your degree?
Yes. I think it's important for everyone to have a degree, and I was very pleased I did it. It was a great experience. Obviously, it was wonderful socially to be around so many people who were interested in doing what I do. I also benefited from the broader education that it gave me in music.
You didn't enter any competitions after the BBC Young Artist Competition. Do you think this gave you more freedom for musical exploration since you weren't constantly trying to prepare to compete?
I think I was lucky that my career was going well and I didn't feel I needed to compete. I won when I was eleven, which is probably the ideal time to be in a competition because I didn't feel the pressure of it at all. It started my career in a small way. My parents were careful about the exposure I received after the BBC competition. I didn't play many concerts, which meant that I gained recognition gradually. I suppose things really started to set off when I was age 17 or 18 and doing my degree. I joined the BBC New Generation Artists and had many opportunities to play with orchestras. Around the same time, I signed with Decca and played on the BBC Proms, an annual summer music festival in London.
I think competitions are important as a way for people to make themselves known. But there can be an element of following rules and doing the right thing in order to win. I think there are examples of wonderful pianists whose playing has become noticeably more interesting after the competition. At that point, they are able to find more freedom in what they do.
I don't know if the lack of competition past the age of eleven had the effect of giving me more freedom in my interpretations. I've always just done my thing. I have high and exacting standards, and I know what I'm striving toward.
The field of pianists is quite crowded now, and, while competitions are a great way to be discovered, it seems that pianists need to stand out even more to be noticed.
There are more musicians around than there used to be. I have a friend at the Royal Academy of Music who said that if someone played the Liszt Sonata ten years ago, it was impressive. Now every student there can play the Liszt Sonata. There has been a huge surge in the past few decades. It's crowded, but also difficult because you shouldn't strive to be an individual—at least in what we do. Individuality is a tricky thing to talk about. We're serving the music and we're serving the composer. It's easy to do things differently for the sake of being unique, but everything has to be quite organic, and one needs to maintain a respect for the score and the music.
Listening to your performances, it is obvious that you spend a great deal of time in studying the score—but you have your own unique style as well.
You have to have the utmost respect for the score, as it is your original inspiration. The old-school pianists did take some liberties, however. Some of this came from years of living with the score, the music, the idiom, and the style. I heard an interview with Jorge Bolet where he said a composer might write a piece for a week, or a month, or a year, but, a pianist lives with the piece for their whole life. His point was that if you believe that the music is better when it deviates from the score, then you should follow that belief. But only if it's sincerely held.
There's a great moment in a Rachmaninoff recording of the Chopin Funeral March movement where he does the opposite of what Chopin indicates in one of the repeats and inverts the crescendo. We get this wonderful effect of the march heading toward the climax the first time, and then going away from it the second time. I think it would be a shame if we had never heard that.
You've been compared to Cortot and Schnabel. Which pianists have you found to be inspirational?
There are many pianists I admire, including Cortot, Schnabel, Rachmaninoff, Hofmann, and others. They all have such distinct personalities at the keyboard, such unique sounds. We're fortunate to have access to all these recordings on YouTube, and I've always been interested in listening to those artists' playing. It's flattering to hear that people find that kind of aesthetic in my playing, but not surprising because those are the pianists I've always looked up to and admired.
It is said that classical music is a dying art form. As a young pianist, do you feel you need to be the role model who will bring classical music to the next generation?
I think it's true that the population of classical music audiences is aging. Education is vital in giving young people access to classical music. It is so important for the development of the child, as well as a way of educating our future audience members. It's a shame that not every child has the opportunity to play an instrument and have access to music. You could do a workshop on Mozart or Stockhausen and, if you do it well, kids will love it and respond to it. If they have those early experiences, they're more likely to return to music later on.
I do feel a certain amount of responsibility as an artist. Being the same age as many students draws them to come and listen, and I'm enthusiastic whenever I'm asked to do outreach. I'm an ambassador for a charity called London Music Masters, an organization that strives to give all children access to music. I've had wonderful experiences playing and talking to children.
Given that you are only 25 years of age, are there any pieces that you are waiting to play until you are older?
Over the past decade or more, I can say that there have been certain composers I didn't identify with right away. It doesn't necessarily have to do with maturity, but a misconceived opinion of them. Until I was 13 or 14, I thought Bach's music was dry and academic, but then I heard some recordings that made me believe differently. I've since loved the music and have played a lot of it. I had difficulty responding to the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and at some point, that dispersed and I realized what their music was all about. Piano repertoire is so vast. You can't get through it all very quickly, and there are many things I'd love to learn soon. I'm excited to be performing Beethoven's second piano concerto this coming winter, which is a new concerto for me.
The program I'm playing now is fairly new. The Bach French Suite No. 5 in G Major opens as a palate cleanser—an amuse-bouche, if you will. It's such joyous, melodious music before quite a dark program of Brahms Op. 119 interspersed with the Brett Dean Hommage à Brahms, Debussy's L'après midi d'un faune, the Berg Sonata, and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. I found it fascinating that the Brahms and Debussy pieces were written one year apart, in 1893 and 1894 respectively, and the Berg Sonata and Gaspard were also written one year apart, in 1908 and 1909. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the styles and colors chosen by these composers who were writing in the same time periods.
How do you find time to practice with your busy touring schedule?
I generally have summers and December free to learn new repertoire. Those are always reliable times for me. When I'm touring, I need three hours with the concert piano to get to know how it behaves. Otherwise, I try to organize time so that I can get to the piano. I'm always thinking about what is coming next. You have to have a lot of discipline to fit it all in and there are some days you just can't.
How much I practice depends on how much I need to learn. Obviously, quality is more important than quantity. Unless you have a lot of repertoire to learn, five hours a day should be sufficient time spent, but sometimes the repertoire demands a bit more.
I think good practice should not be solid playing. Silence is very important to practice; having a moment to think about what you've just played and working from there. It allows me to practice thoughtfully. Rostropovich said that he didn't play a note unless he had a reason for playing the note. I believe we could all benefit from this.
I think recording yourself can be very helpful in practice. If I feel stuck in a musical idea, I often record myself to help hear my options more clearly. In addition, not practicing for too long at one time is essential. In a performance, you never really have to concentrate for more than fifty minutes at a time, so that should dictate your practice session. They also say that you should stand up for ten minutes after being seated for fifty.
With so much repertoire to learn, where do you begin your process?
The process of learning a new piece is messy and there are ups and downs. I start with the score. Studying and sightreading through the score is the first step. At some point, I find it helpful to listen to recordings but only after having the piece for a few weeks. I think it can be fascinating to listen to other interpretations. You might not respond to them positively at first, but you can gain a lot of insight into a piece this way.
Finally, any advice for young pianists who hope to have a career in music?
I don't feel I'm old enough to give this advice! So many things have to come together to make a career. There's a certain amount of luck involved, but I've also worked really hard to get where I am. I guess that would be it—to just work hard.
I think that is the best advice you could give at any age!